Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets. Follow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!
Okay so we’re on to our final conference and as much as it pains me as a South African rugby supporter to say this, I really think this is where the 2016 Super Rugby Champions will come from. Yes, some Kiwi stalwarts have retired but every single one of their franchises has a conveyor belt that just seems to churn out the most talented of rugby players.
Anyway, that’s enough waxing lyrical about New Zealand rugby’s success story, let’s rather shift our attention to how their franchises' are shaping up for this year’s tournament.
To Win Outright: 22/1
2015 Finish: Group-Stage
Possible dark horses? Well with the young talent they’ll have at their disposal, I really think they’re in with a shout of making the knockout phase of the tournament.
Newly installed head coach Tana Umaga will bring a completely different approach to his predecessor Sir John Kirwin. The former All Balck centre was a role model for most of this Blues squad, and I reckon his down to earth nature and intimate knowledge of what is required to win this tournament will give his team a bit of an edge over their competitors.
While Umaga's appointment is a massive plus for the Blues, their real coup de gras has been the development of the brothers Ioane. Akira and Reiko are two highly skilled players with all the potential in the world. The former is an athletic, hard-hitting flanker while the latter is a utility back with blistering pace and a great understanding of the game. Factor in mercurial pivot Ihia West, barnstorming prop Charlie Faumuina, and the returning Rene Ranger, and you’ve got a solid core that’s capable of leading their colleagues to the knockout phase of the competition.
Player To Watch: Akira Ioane
This kid is a freak of nature. Weighing in at 113 kilograms, you’d expect the young flanker to be a bit of a one trick pony, who could only use his weight to assert himself on the game. This would be a grave misjudgement, however, as Akira is a highly skilled and incredibly quick player. He’s been dominating opposition sides while representing the New Zealand Sevens team. He may have made a few appearances for the Blues in the 2015 Super Rugby tournament, but this will be the year that the monstrous flanker becomes a household name. Also, keep an eye out for his 19-year-old brother Reiko.
I have a sneaky suspicion that the Blues are on for a Highlanders-esque season. They’ve certainly got the talent and the coaching staff to make it through to the play-offs.
To Win Outright: 7/1
2015 Finish: Group-Stage
So the Carter/ McCaw era is over and as a South African rugby supporter that makes me extremely happy. Yes they were fantastic players, and yes they did some incredible things on a rugby field that will see them go down in the annals of rugby history as two of the greatest players to ever take to a pitch, but I cannot overlook how much heartbreak they have caused me.
Anyway enough of my patriotic rambling, let’s take a look at how the men from Canterbury are shaping up for the 2016 Super Rugby campaign. Well as I mentioned above, they’ve lost two of their stalwarts. They do have a wealth of experience among their ranks still, with the likes of the Sam Whitelock, Wyatt Crockett, Owen Franks, Luke Romano, Kieran Read, Andy Ellis, Robbie Fruean, and Ryan Crotty all set to pull on the 'Saders jersey this term.
Those are some big name players, who will be keen to right the wrongs of last year’s sub-par campaign. The squad also has a nice balance to it with youngsters Mitchell Hunt and Sean Winau set to impress. They also have flying Fijian Nemani Nadolo to call upon. The giant winger has been somewhat of a revelation for the Crusaders over the last two last years. His power and speed make him extremely hard to bring down and if he gets a head of steam up there’s almost no stopping him.
Player To Watch: Robbie Fruean
It’s make or break time for Robbie Fruean. After a few injury hampered years, the hard running centre is back to full fitness. His raw pace, agility, and defensive awareness will be key to this new look Crusaders backline. He will definitely be aiming to live up to all the hype that surrounded him when he burst onto the scene
Todd Blackadder’s men will be fired up after last season’s poor showing. They’ve won the tournament more than any other team and I think they may well have added another title to their trophy cabinet when this season closes out.
*Click here for a full tournament fixtures list
To Win Outright: 11/2
2015 Finish: Play-Offs
Will the Chiefs be as dominate a force without New Zealand's poster boy Sonny Bill Williams? That’s the question that’s getting a lot of airtime in the “land of the long white cloud” at present. Williams has committed himself to the New Zealand Sevens set up with hopes of winning a gold medal at the Rio Olympics this year. Williams along with Liam Messam, who has also committed to the New Zealand Sevens side, will play no part in the Chiefs campaign, while half-back Augustine Pula will only participate in roughly half the Chiefs season as he is also part of Sir Gordon Tietjens plans for the Olympics.
On a positive note, the Chiefs will have talismanic pivot Aaron Cruden back in the mix. The All Black missed a huge chunk of last season with a knee injury. His return will help negate the loss of Williams and his co-Sevens converts. His understudy, Damian Mckenzie is also a brilliant prospect so the Chiefs definitely have enough backup when it comes to the flyhalf role. The fleet-footed Mckenzie is also able to cover a whole host of positions in the backline and I expect him to be one of the key men for the Chiefs this term.
On to the Waikato side’s pack now, and there’s a rather nice blend of youth and experience to it. Veterans, Hika Elliot, Brodie Ratallick, Dominic Bird, and Michael Leitch will help calm the nerves of the Chiefs young guns. And while they have lost Liam Messam, they do have the man who is being touted as air apparent to Ritchie McCaw’s throne, Sam Cane. The young flanker is an absolute workhorse. He also commands a lot of respect from his colleagues despite his tender age.
Player To Watch: Charlie Ngatai
The hard-hitting centre is yet to really stamp his mark on Super Rugby despite having a 2013 winners medal to his name. That could all change this year, however. He is a powerful runner, who’s more inclined to go through a defender than around him. He will offer the Chiefs a solid ball carrying option this term.
With nine players from last year’s squad unavailable for this year’s campaign, I simply can’t see the Chiefs winning it. They’ll be decent when their first-choice starting XV is fit but as soon as some of their big names pick up a few injuries they are likely to crumble like a house of cards.
To Win Outright: 10/1
2015 Finish: Finalists
The Highlanders demonstrated that you don’t need a squad full of world class players to win a Super Rugby trophy last year. Their tight-knit title-winning squad mostly made up of local lads who grew up in Otago and came through the junior ranks together.
It’s not going to be an easy title defence for Jamie Joseph’s side as they won’t be able to fly under the radar as they did in 2015. They have managed to retain the majority of their squad, which will do their chances no harm. Joseph’s has also managed to recruit some fantastic players in the form of loose forwards Liam Squires and Luke Whitelock. Another coup for the Highlanders this season was retaining the services of Japanese scrum-half Fumiaki Tanaka. While the diminutive Fumiaki is likely to play second fiddle to Aaron Smith, he will offer a brilliant option off the bench.
Speaking of the Smiths, the man who could prove pivotal for the Highlanders this season is fullback Ben Smith. The solid 15 was brilliant for his franchise last year. His ability to launch counter-attacks from deep inside his own half will put opposition flyhalves under pressure. His combination play with wingers Waisake Naholo and Patrick Osbourne saw the Highlanders run in some fantastic tries from deep inside their own territory.
Not only do the Highlanders possess an exciting backline, they also have a solid forward pack. Former Lions prop Ross Redelinghuis is likely to anchor the scrum having impressed in the ITM Cup last year. The ace in the Highlanders sleeve will be their back row however. Dan Pryor really impressed me last year as did his fellow loose forward James Lientjies. Young Leintjies didn’t actually play much Super Rugby last term, but he was brilliant in both the semi-final and final where he stepped into the starting XV due to the Highlanders suffering a loose forward injury crisis
Player To Watch: Lima Sopoaga
Is this the man who will inherit Dan Carters All Black jersey? He has the skillset to do it. The young Highlander put in some impressive displays for his franchise last year and was rewarded with a run-on Test debut against the Springboks at Ellis Park. He will once again play a vital role for the defending champions this year.
I like the look of this Highlanders squad; they’ve got some talented youngsters, and the Smiths are two of the best players in world rugby at present. My money is on them meeting the Crusaders in the final this year.
To Win Outright: 5/1
2015 Finish: Runners-Up
The Canes are still probably wondering how they managed to end last season as runners-up rather than winners. The men from Wellington were almost untouchable during the round-robin phase, winning 14 of their 16 games. They then hammered the Brumbies in the semi-final and headed into the competition decider as strong favourites. Fate had other ideas however, and they ended up losing the final by seven points.
Last year was a bit of a farewell tour for two of their stalwarts, with Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith biding Wellington adieu as they departed for French shores. Smith and Nonu weren’t the only two men to leave the Canes at the end of last year’s Super Rugby season. Samoan centre Ray Le-Loo, All Black prop Ben Franks, lock Jeremy Thrush, and scrum-half Chris Smylie, have all moved on.
When you take a look at the Canes' squad for 2016, it does look a little threadbare. This is not to say there isn't quality in the squad. Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles, Cory Jane, James Marshall, the Savea brother, TJ Perenara, and Nehe Milner Skudder are all quality players who are capable of leading this side to great things. There will be issues for the Canes if one of these men suffer a season-ending injury, however.
Player To Watch: Nehe Milner-Skudder
This man was rightly rewarded with the IRB’s Breakthrough player of the Year last season. Having struggled to find a Super Rugby franchise for near on two years, he was given his chance to shine by the Hurricanes, and boy did he shine. He’s got feet that Michael Flatley would envy and a repertoire of tricks that makes most David Blaine look mediocre. I could honestly carry on with the superlatives for another hour or so, but I think you guys get the gist of it.
They just don’t have enough quality in reserve to make it to the knockout phase of the tournament. Much like the Chiefs, they will be great when their first choice players are fit and available but if one of their stalwarts faces a lengthy injury layoff then the Canes may find themselves struggling to tread water.
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